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    The Lord's Prayer

    Our Father in Heaven (Mat. 6:9)

    by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith (1999)

    The first words of the Lord's prayer tell us how to address God in prayer. Since, as we said before, this prayer is both an example of a prayer that we can use and also general instruction about prayer, the words of address are especially important. These words remind us both who we are and who God is. They define our relationship with Him and with one another. We receive not only instruction in prayer, but also encouragement to pray.


    To begin with, the Lord's prayer is a corporate prayer. This does not mean that we cannot offer this prayer when we are alone, nor does it imply that it is wrong for us to pray to God as "my Father." But like those creeds and confessions which use the plural, such as the Westminster Confession (although mostly stated in objective third person form, it uses the first person plural also, I:5, VI:1, etc.) rather than the singular, such as the Apostles' Creed, there is special emphasis placed on the fact that we belong to a group.

    There is, of course, such a thing as "Biblical individualism." We can only believe in God as individuals; no one else can believe in God for us. We will stand before God and give account of ourselves as individuals and we will be rewarded or punished forever as individuals. The Bible calls each of us individually to trust in God and offer prayer to Him as individuals who have a personal relationship with Him. In all of these matters, then, the Bible forces us to stand alone before God.

    But for all that, the Bible is not a book that teaches us that humans are separate and alone. Children are supposed to be born into the world in the context of a covenantal group called a family. Though sinful men often violate the Biblical standard, they cannot erase the fact that they have ancestors, nor their covenantal connection with Adam and his sin. Also men are usually involved in other covenantal groups, such as the Church and the State. Those men who choose to avoid contact with others in order to become "greater" in some sense, by becoming "holy hermits," for example, in fact loose part of their humanity.

    In the Lord's prayer, then, we are taught to think of ourselves as part of a larger group with whom we are praying, even if we happen to be offering our prayer alone. In fact, even when we offer the Lord's prayer together with our family or in our local church, the word "our" does not refer to the little group gathered at the time the prayer is being offered. The "our" refers to all of those who rightly call God their Father. We pray as members of the body of Christ. And Jesus teaches us here that we should be conscious of the fact that we pray with others who come to God, just like we do, as His beloved children.

    This has important meaning for our daily lives, for the way that we identify ourselves in prayer is our most important self-identification. How we stand before God is more important than how we stand before the civil government, as citizens of this or that nation, and more important than how we stand before society, as members of this or that family. We are members of families and nations, to be sure, but we are first of all and primarily the children of God. We belong to His kingdom and to His family. Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:1) where our Father is.

    Our Father

    It is important also that we understand that we are given permission to call on God as our Father. In the larger context of the Sermon on the Mount, it seems to be one of the main things Jesus intends to emphasize (cf. 5:16, 45, 48; 6:1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 14, 15, 18, 26: 7:11). To be able to come to God in prayer and call Him our Father suggests a new intimacy that is not found in the Old Testament. Though God was indeed called the Father of the fatherless (cf. Ps. 68:5, etc.), was said to pity men as a Father (Ps. 103:13) and was addressed even as "our Father" on occasion (Isa. 63:16; 64:8), the words "our Father" do not express the typical or daily manner in which the Jews approached God. For us, they do. We are to come daily before the throne of the Everlasting Majesty and call Him, "our Father."

    Not only do these words suggest the wonderful intimacy of our approach to God, but they contain a guarantee of His love, for it is God Himself who teaches us to come before Him and call Him Father. If our fathers on earth know how to give us good things because they love us, how much more may we be assured that our Father in heaven loves us?

    The world has perverted the truth of God's love into the idea that love is God, but that just means it is all the more important for us to understand His love correctly. In the Garden Satan denied God's love when he tempted Adam and Eve. Ever since then, suggesting that God does not really love us is one of Satan's basic means of tempting men to deny Him. Our Lord teaches us to believe in God as our Father in heaven and, thus, to trust in His love and goodness. When we learn to pray to Him as Father, we will not be so easily tempted to discouragement and unbelief.

    When we think of the words "our Father" we are reminded of the expression used by Paul, "Abba Father." This is an even more intimate expression for addressing God and one that further explains the idea of addressing God as Father. We can call Him Father because He has adopted us as His children: "ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father" (Rom. 8:15b). The words that the Spirit of adoption suggests to us are the very words our Lord used when He prayed in the Garden: "And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt" (Mk. 14:36).

    Who Art In Heaven

    We come to God, then, with the confidence that He loves us as His children and will hear our prayers. But we also come to One who is majestic and glorious. His home is in heaven because He is the transcendent God, Lord over all. When we come to Him in prayer, we must remember His greatness no less than His Fatherhood. We must remember His holiness no less than His love. Jesus teaches us not to forget reverence when we approach God.

    But these words are not here just to remind us that He is greater than we. These words are intended as a comfort also, for the fact that He is the Lord of heaven, sovereign over all things, means that He can answer our prayers. We are coming to a Father who has the power to do what we ask and the wisdom to say no to us when we ask wrongly. If we are addressing the heavenly One, we should ask for things of heavenly grandeur. It is not wrong for us to ask God for small things, and we often do, but it is wrong if we do not ask God for the great things, for Jesus, in the next few petitions teaches us to address God in heaven with petitions that are worthy of heaven's consideration.

    To come to God in heaven is to be admitted to the audience of the most powerful Being and we invited to enter His presence with assurance of His Fatherly love and care. Why should we fear? Why don't we bring all things to Him in prayer? Why do we not seek great things from our great Father so that we may see His kingdom come and His name honored? Our Lord encourages us in all these matters and calls us to rest in God, for He is our Father in heaven.

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